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Understanding NLP: Metaphors and Patterns of Change

Peter Young
In Understanding NLP, author Peter Young’s objective is to present a general theory of NLP such that the body of knowledge that is NLP “will no longer be just a collection of separate techniques and processes, but become a unified whole.” He points out that most books about NLP are “recipe books for change,” while the massive content of NLP is “a collection of presuppositions, processes, and models, without a coordinating or unifying theory.” Young seeks to bring order to this chaos. A noble undertaking indeed, and certainly no small feat.

It took me a long time to write this review, because it took me a long time to figure out where Young was going with this book. It is not an easy read, and the main problem lies not in the content, per se, but in the organization of the content. Young offers perhaps a new and useful way of looking at NLP, explaining all the pieces of the puzzle first, before finally pulling them together for a full picture of his theory. For someone like me, whose meta-program for learning is global-to-detail, understanding Understanding NLP was a daunting task. I disagree with the assertion on the book jacket that this book is well-suited for “both NLP beginners and Practitioners” (italics are mine). I consider it advanced reading.

The Four Modes of Reality

Young invites us to a new way of looking at NLP via four modes of reality. He informs us that people structure experience through four “worldviews and belief systems.” He draws upon the work of William McWhinney (Paths of Change, Sage Publications, London, 1997) whose “Four Realities Model” traces its origins to ancient Buddhism. McWhinney’s model divides the world into two major dimensions: Plurality (the one and the many) and Agency (free will and determinism). These dichotomies yield four worldviews of “reality.”

The Four Realities Monistic Pluralistic Deterministic Unitary (rules/truths) Sensory (facts/evidence) Free Will Mythic (ideas/creativity) Social (feelings/values)

If we accept the definition of NLP as “the study of the structure of subjective experience,” then we can see that subjective experience can be a representation of not one reality, but one of four realities. The four realities are distinctly different worldviews governing language, meaning, and behavior. How we apply NLP depends on our own reality mode, and how we perceive another’s reality mode, at any given moment. Young’s book explains how each reality mode structures our subjective experiences (i.e., our maps of the territory) within the context of NLP.

The four realities provide a foundation for understanding the structure of subjective experience. Perceiving another’s form of reality can help us in selecting the language, metaphors, and NLP processes we apply when we want to gain rapport, lead, teach, or otherwise influence, or when we want to facilitate change.

The four realities parallel other classification systems. In Jungian (Myers-Briggs) archetypes for example, we find these matches: Intuitive-Mythic, Sensing- Sensory, Thinking-Unitary, and Feeling-Social. The four realities match the Satir personality categories as well: Blamer-Unitary, Computer-Sensory, Distractor-Mythic, and Placator-Social. As with meta-programs, we can recognize another’s reality mode by listening to language patterns, and to statements about “what’s important” and “how things work.”

No one is confined to operating in only one reality mode. We transition from one quadrant to another, depending on context. “Change is always a path through different modes of reality.”

Metaphors for Change

We construct metaphors to explain the abstract. Our metaphors of reality become a foundation for building “models” and creating “processes.” We create metaphors for life and human experience, yet each metaphor carries limitations, consequences, and inaccuracies. Thus, we do well to examine and choose our metaphors carefully—including those about NLP.

NLP asks “What do you want?” and provides processes for reaching well-formed outcomes. The metaphor for the change process is the Hero’s Quest, an age-old story of achievement through triumph over difficulty and opposition. In various versions of the Hero’s Quest, we find archetypes that parallel the four realities. We also find four approaches to problem solving.

• The Warrior---Unitary: By following specific rules, the Warrior finds truth. • The Scholar----Sensory: The Scholar applies logic and analysis to find the answer. • The Hero---Social: The Hero relies on passion, judgements, and beliefs to overcome adversity. • The Magician---Mythic: The Magician conquers problems through creativity.

Young teaches us that each reality mode characterizes problems in a different way. • In Unitary mode, the problem is a “stuck” state in which one is unclear as to how to proceed. One feels helpless and powerless. • In Sensory mode, problems are “confusion” due to insufficient information. The situation seems senseless or pointless. • In Social mode, problems create “indecision” because of conflicts in values. The individual feels worthless or insignificant. • In Mythic mode, the problem is “having no idea,” or no metaphor for understanding. The existential dilemma is one of meaninglessness.

Each reality mode employs different strategies for solving problems. When a particular strategy does not work well, it is time to shift to another reality mode, for a fresh perspective. We first gain rapport by pacing with the prevailing reality mode. Then through leading and reframing, we facilitate a shift to another mode.


In examining motivation, Young draws upon the work of David McClellend, to show how each reality mode evinces a unique motivational style.

The Unity mode is drawn to power. The Sensory Mode is drawn to achievement. The Social Mode is drawn to affiliation. The Mythic Mode is drawn to creativity.


Young devotes considerable and worthwhile discussion to the role of language in shaping reality. Language codes experience into thought, and thought into experience. Thus, language creates our maps of reality. Everything that was ever created by humans first existed as a thought, and thoughts are expressed in words. Therefore, language is the tool of creation.

Encoding is the process in which we create symbols for experience. “We assemble strings of symbols in order to communicate our ideas to others, who are able to somehow reconstitute a version of the original experience and understand our message.” With language we interpret what comes in through our senses, while striving for a “unitary view of an ever-changing, largely unpredictable world.” We create meanings, perceptions, definitions, and categories, in an attempt to replicate actuality. We nominalize, draw analogies, and make stories. Consider then, that “each reality mode has its own kind of language, based on what is presupposed in that world view.”

Decoding is the process of constructing meaning from what others say. Words, however, are one step removed for the actual experiences they describe. “Therefore, decoding has a high probability of mis-matching, especially when the subject matter is not demonstrable in sensory experience.” When we seek to clarify, the information we get depends on the questions we ask. Consider then, that each reality mode has its own “violations” of the language. When we use the Meta-model to “challenge” the limits of spoken language, we will get best results when we adapt our inquiries for each reality mode.

Versions of NLP

One’s approach to NLP depends on one’s version of reality. Young points out that we can see these various approaches in those who have developed NLP and shaped the field. See how he categorizes these approaches:

Reality Mode NLP Model and emphasis Exemplars Unitary External Behavior: physiology and behavior John Grinder, Tony Robbins Sensory Internal Processing: cognitive approaches and strategies, submodalities, qualities and distinctions Richard Bandler, Robert Dilts, Steve Andreas Mythic Worldview: activating the imagination with hypnosis, metaphor, and imagery Milton Erickson, David Gordon Social Internal State: emotions and feelings Leslie Cameron-Bandler, L. Michael Hall

It’s as though each reality mode constitutes a mini-model of NLP, based on a particular idea of what works, or what makes people tick. Young tells us that “By identifying which model or general theory is appropriate, we can develop some effective ways and positive ways of changing.” With each reality category, we can develop “a combination of some simple cognitive models to help us decide what to do” when we work with NLP.

Enhancing the Basic Change Model

Young proposes several enhancements to our understandings of NLP change processes. He asks us to realize that change occurs at three levels: physical, mind, and spirit. Further, learning can occur at four levels of awareness (according to Gregory Bateson): a. Learning that occurs only in a specific domain or context. b. Learning that moves us out of context, as we see alternative realities. c. Learning in which we create alternatives and categorize in a new way, as we appreciate the arbitrary nature of all reality. d. Learning that is beyond human comprehension.

Additionally, resources exist at three levels a. Level I resources change the immediate problem, within present reality, at the physical level. b. Level II resources create new capabilities, rules, algorithms, and heuristics. c. Level III resources access creativity and expand the mind/body system to “a way of being in which we are open to a bountiful and boundaryless universe.”

Young presents the Reflection Model as a “model of models” to explain that human change follows a three-stage process: Inform, Reform, and Transform.

About the Author

Peter Young studied Psychology at the University of Hull, Great Britain, conducted research on brain function at Adelaide University, Australia and studied Drama at Flanders University in South Australia. He has maintained a life-long interest in drama, improvisation, plot and storytelling. He became interested in NLP in 1984 when he trained with John Seymour and Associates and worked with Ian McDermott (both Seymour and McDermott are authors of NLP books). He has been developing his “new paradigm” of NLP over recent years and has published numerous articles in Rapport (the magazine of the Association for NLP) and given presentations at the ANLP and similar conferences.

Is Something Missing Here?

Understanding NLP presents an epistemology of NLP. There is much original thinking in this book, some not covered in this review. Because this is not a book about process, you will find no mention of calibration, anchoring, frames, timelines, submodalities, trance, strategies, reframing, or meta-states. However, Young gives one chapter each to rapport, parts, and Dilt’s metamirror (changes in perceptual positions) because he deems these essential to understanding how NLP works.

It seems to me that any theory of NLP would surely incorporate Neuro-logical Levels of Experience (since NLP is about subjective experience) and NLP Presuppositions (because they provide a tentative rationale of why/how NLP Practitioners do what they do). Young does not give adequate attention to either.

He more or less dismisses Dilt’s neuro-logical levels by stating: “As they stand they are useful as a way of asking questions about experience. What is confusing is Dilt’s explanation. He treats them as though they are hierarchical when in fact they are not.” (p. 305) Young could have addressed Neuro-logical Levels just as he addresses Maslows’ Hierarchy of Human Needs early on, where he states that these needs are not really hierarchical at all, but often operate simultaneously and in complimentary ways. He then discusses how we fulfill needs on various levels: the practical, social, creative, and formal levels, which relate to the four realities.

As for NLP Presuppositions, Young tells us that they are an aspect of NLP that belongs in the Unitary category of reality. He then directs readers to Bodenhamer and Hall’s The User’s Manual for the Brain (Crown House Publishing, 1999) for more information. The overlooked issue here is whether Young’s theory of NLP and the NLP Presuppositions are consistent with one another and mutually supportive.

The Four Realities Model of NLP is a creative way of describing how NLP can accommodate various worldviews and I found this aspect of the book most thought-provoking. However, I cannot help but wonder whether the four reality modes are not simply another meta-program structure. Unfortunately, meta-programs are not mentioned in this book so I don’t know how Young makes the distinction.


The main question at hand is whether Young has accomplished his outcome. Does Understanding NLP present an organized theory of NLP or does it simply add another layer of complexity (or confusion) to our accumulated knowledge? Consider these aspects of what a theory is supposed to do.

A theory is a system of knowledge, based on models (often expressed in metaphor) that help us to discern and predict patterns of behavior. Placing NLP within the context/system of Reality Modes may very well help us categorize and select the NLP processes we use.

A theory explains how a process works or how results come about. In this case, a theory of NLP would explain how NLP’s language-based methods create changes in human mind-body states. In Young’s theory, NLP works when the listener encodes words that shift him or her to another mode of reality—creating new frames, meanings, focus, perceptual positions, and metaphors that give solutions to problems. Young’s Reflection Model explains that language informs, reforms, and transforms, sequentially.

Conversely, a theory explains what is happening when something doesn’t work. When NLP doesn’t work, we can usually point to several possible explanations. Perhaps we didn’t follow the steps in the process, or we didn’t communicate in a way that could be understood, or we were not in rapport, or we somehow crossed an ecological boundary. Young could have pulled all these ideas together in one place and examined them, especially, again, in light of the NLP Presuppositions (which he does not adequately discuss). While Young has some good things to say about rapport and communication as essential to making NLP work, and while he advises readers to follow process, he says nothing about ecology.

A theory provides principals for the practice of a discipline. Through a combination of models and principals, theory is generative---it can be applied to new situations in an ad hoc way. Young does not offer a precise set of principals for NLP.

Final Words

I have struggled to understand Understanding NLP and yet I so admire many of Young’s ideas and his courage in undertaking this book that I am loath to offer any evaluation that is critical or disparaging. While I could easily understand and find worthwhile information in each chapter, I simply did not come away with a new theory of NLP. Perhaps I overlooked something. Perhaps the value in a book such as Understanding NLP is that it will stimulate questions and discussion among NLP practitioners that allow us to further refine our methods and knowledge. Therefore, let’s give the author the final word.

This book is my explanation of the patterns and models underlying NLP. Of course, there will be those who disagree. This is in the tradition of new paradigms….That’s fine. There needs to be testing, there needs to be debate, there needs to be a reformulation of ideas. A ‘useful’ theory…is generative. It tells you how to adapt existing processes, and how to create new techniques, given the basic principals. Metaphorically, instead of just giving you a collection of recipes, it teaches you to cook. (p. 77)